Monday, October 21, 2013

Just Who is the Real Rich Man?


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


"If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead."  (LK. 16:31)


The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is the only parable that has a named character; and the only parable in which Jesus describes the "afterlife."  In these two instances it remains unique among the Lord's parables.  It is a parable extremely rich in content, with a rather complex structure based upon a "reversal of fortune,"and filled with multiple themes.  Yet, certainly one of those many themes is quite apparent and revealed with a stark directness:  the consequence of ignoring the poor and needy, embodied in Lazarus, the poor man at the gate. (Is he given a name to emphasize this point in a personal and less-forgettable manner, so that his character takes us beyond an anonymous example of the poor?). The rich man in hades (the biblical realm of the dead) bears the consequence of his indifference to Lazarus and his unwillingness to share.  St. John Chrysostom explored this theme of wealth and poverty with unrivaled insight and depth in his famous series of homilies on this parable (a collection of homilies that now exists in English and which every member of the Church should read). St. John would always challenge the conventional wisdom of his own age, by interpreting the Scriptures in such a way that would turn our accepted values upside down so that we would be able to look at things in a new and startling light.  In a famous passage from his homilies, he challenges our conventional notions of what true wealth and true poverty actually are.  He does this by asking just who is the real rich  man and who is the real poor man:

"Let us learn from this man not to call the rich lucky nor the poor unfortunate.  Rather, if we are to tell the truth, the rich man is not the one who has collected many possessions but the one who needs few possessions; and the poor man is not the one who has no possessions but the one who has many desires. We ought to consider this the definition of poverty and wealth.  So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired everyone's money. If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing."

I rather doubt that this will change the minds of very many of us about the true nature of wealth and poverty.  Conventional wisdom - combined with observation and life experience - does tell us that wealth has to do with money, possessions, status and power; and that poverty has to do with lacking any and all of these things.  Many of us "deep down" crave to be wealthy, and we certainly fear the specter of poverty.  Yet, St. John was neither a simpleton nor a na├»ve dreamer.  He knows of the corrosive effect on the wealthy of a life primarily dedicated to more and more acquisition and how this becomes obsessive and compulsive; and he knew many Christians personally that sought a life of simplicity and through that pursuit discovered a different type of wealth that had the presence of God as its source.  St. John was also aware of the judgment of God which differs radically from our own limited understanding of the "bigger picture."

Many people are forced to struggle to makes ends meet - and perhaps dream of hitting the lottery - and can only watch with envy the lifestyles of "the rich and famous" that entice such dreams. Perhaps, then, St. John makes some sense about the obsessive "collection of many possessions," the fulfillment of "many desires" and the effect of being "greedy for many things;" and how a "successful" pursuit of this captivating dream can be more impoverishing than enriching.  And then St. John got the point of the parable: in some cases it can be too late to change.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Hearing, Living, and Bringing Forth Fruit

'Christ the Sower', by Fr Luke Dingman

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


"He who has ears to hear, let him hear."  (LK. 8:8)


Intent on trying to practice what I preach, I spent some time this week thinking over the parable of the Sower and the Seed (LK. 8:5-15) that we all heard together at the Liturgy last Sunday.  To really "hear" what the Gospel proclaims in church is to concentrate on the words of the sacred text; to absorb what was heard as well as possible in the mind and heart; to reflect upon this "word" well beyond the limits of the Liturgy; and then, hopefully and by the grace of God, to put into practice in our own lives the living word of the Gospel. The parable of the Sower and the Seed is actually rather complicated and multi-layered in terms of its major theme(s).  I turned to a few commentaries, both from the Church Fathers and from contemporary biblical scholars for addition insight.  And here I discovered an interesting approach from a certain Klyne Snodgrass in an excellent study of the parables in a book entitled Stories With Intent - A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. I would like to share his concluding reflections on this parable, a reflection that has a definite pastoral dimension to it.  The over-all content and concerns that Snodgrass raises - together with its particular language and vocabulary - have a clearly Evangelical tone to them, but the point is well-made about "hearing" the word and then "living" the word.  That point seems to capture the true intent of this marvelous parable.

The parable emphasizes both receptivity and bearing fruit.  Two of the three sowings that fail describe people who respond positively to the message.  They even hear the message with joy, but their hearing is still superficial.  Receiving the kingdom with joy is not enough - a message the modern church desperately needs to hear.  Faith that is temporary and unproductive is not true faith.  Most pastors would be quite happy if people received the word with joy or made claims about faith, but this parable asserts that people can receive the word with joy and still be guilty of hardness of heart.  Any hearing that does not result in productive living in relation to the Father is not valid hearing. As C. Keener observes, "The only conversions that count in the kingdom are those confirmed by a life of discipleship."  Fear that a concern for productive living leads to legalism only shows how much people have misunderstood Jesus' message.  Does initially receptive hearing that eventually fails  raise the question of eternal security?  People are overly vexed with the question of eternal security because of inadequate understanding of faith.  This parable does not address the question of eternal security; it raises the question of inadequate and unproductive hearing.  Churches should not be complicit in allowing people to think an initial response unaccompanied by productive living is saving faith. 
 ... The parable is about hearing that leads to productive living, and adapting the parable will mean enabling people to move past merely hearing words - even with joy - to hearing that captures the whole person.  People think they can look like giant oaks without putting down deep roots.  When they realize how much effort it takes to put down deep roots, they too often settle for being bramble bushes.
— Stories of Intent, p. 176

Actually, it is within the Orthodox Church, and the ongoing Tradition of the Church that reveals the same Christ, "yesterday, today and forever" (HEB. 13:8), that we have the supreme capability of putting "down deep roots."  We also learn that we need not be obsessed with the question of "eternal security."  We place our lives in the hands of a loving and forgiving God and leave judgment to His wisdom and mercy. That process, however, is far from guaranteed by mere membership. It is more about hearing the word with a good and honest heart, and bringing forth fruit with patience. (LK. 8:15)  This is what the saints have taught us through example throughout the entire history of the Church.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Thundering Message


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Christ raises the Son of the Widow of Nain
We recently heard the powerful account of Jesus raising from the dead the widow's son at Nain (LK. 7:11-16).  This particular event is unique to St. Luke's Gospel. In his Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke, the biblical scholar Carroll Stuhlmueller, summarized the over-all impression left by this extraordinary event in the following manner:

This incident, only in Luke, shows the Evangelist's special delight in portraying Jesus not only overwhelmed with pity at the sight of tragedy but also turning with kindly regard toward women (cf. 7:36-50; 10:38-42) ... This narrative possesses the charm, color, and pathos of an excellent story:  two large crowds meet, approaching from different directions; the silence with which Jesus touches the bier and stops the funeral procession; the thundering message, calmly spoken, bringing the dead back to life.  (The Jerome Biblical Commentary)

Truly, it is nothing less than a "thundering message" when Jesus said:  "Young man, I say to you arise!"  (LK. 7:14).   And when the young man "sat up and began to speak" we should be able to understand, however dimly, the reaction of the crowd: "Fear seized them all; and they glorified God" (7:16).  The pathos of this story is further increased by the fact that the young man was "the only son of his mother, and she was a widow" (7:12).  There was no existing social safety net within first century Israel that would provide support for this woman.  Without a son who could help provide for her, this widow would have been totally dependent upon the good will and the charity of her neighbors in the small village that Nain was known to have been.  Hence, the power of the simple statement that accompanies the young man's restoration to life:  "And he gave him to his mother" (7:15).  What a reunion that must have been!  Now St. Luke makes it clear just who it was who encountered this funeral procession and dramatically brought it to a halt:  "And when the Lord who saw her he had compassion on her" (7:13).  It was "the Lord."  This was the first of many times throughout his Gospel that the Evangelist Luke will use this exalted title for Jesus.  The Greek ho Kyrios — the Lord — is the translation found in the Septuagint of the divine name Yahweh.  Ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament, this title reveals that as the Lord, Jesus has power over both life and death.  Anticipating his own resurrection from the dead, the Lord Jesus Christ brings this young man back to life, revealing that even death is not beyond His authority and capacity to give life.

We are not told how this young man died.  In our contemporary world, death can be more-or-less defined in a clinical manner.  The shift in this clinical definition has moved toward a final determination of "brain death."  Be it the cessation of breath, permanent "cardiac arrest," or the brain death just mentioned, we can identify death and its effect on our biological organism.  And so could anyone in the ancient world, where death was such a more immediate and "up close" reality compared to the rather antiseptic experience of death that we promote today in a attempt to distance the living from the dying as well as that is possible.  But as Christians, we certainly understand death in a way that moves far beyond its current clinical definition and determination.  That is because we understand life in such a way that the clinical is transcended by the mysterious:  "What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?" (PS. 8:4). Conversant with a biblical anthropology that refuses to limit a human person to his or hers biological functions, we perceive ourselves in a more complex and meaningful manner.

There are many ways over the centuries that within our theological tradition we have elaborated on that inexhaustible biblical affirmation that we are created  "according to the image and likeness of God."  The Church Fathers will speak of the human person as a psychosomatic union of soul and body. Or, following the Apostle Paul of a union of spirit, soul and body. (I THESS. 5:23)  Because of some of the Greek philosophical connotations - primarily dualism - of using the terminology of soul and body, there has been a concerted movement within theological circles today to use the more biblically-based terms of "spirit and flesh" to describe the mystery of human personhood.  Whatever the exact terminology employed to describe the fullness of human existence, the essential point being made is that the human person is more - much more - than "what meets the eye."  We are even greater than the angels according to some of the Fathers, because we unite in our person the "spiritual" and  the "material" as the pinnacle of God's creative acts. We have our biological limitations, but we can still know the living God!  Even though we are so frail in our humanity, the psalmist can still exclaim in wonder:  "Yet you have made him little less than the angels, and you have crowned him with glory and honor" (PS. 8:5).

In describing the mystery of death as it pertains to all creatures, including human beings, the psalmist says (and we hear this at every Vespers service):  "When you take away their spirit, they die and return to their dust" (Ps. 104:29).  This is what happened to the young man from Nain regardless of whatever may have been the immediate cause of his death.  Something had happened that could not be fully described as merely brain death. His "spirit" had been taken away and his flesh was destined to return to the dust.  Another expression that became almost classical as a theological description of death - and which essentially means the same thing - is that of the "separation of soul and body."  Either way, the wholeness and integrity of the human person is lost in death.  This is what renders death a tragedy and why the Apostle Paul can refer to death as "the last enemy." When the Lord brought this only son of his mother to life again, the spirit of the young man returned to his flesh - or the soul to his body - and he began to live again in the full meaning of that word.  Yet, this is not resurrection in the fullness of that word's meaning as we apply it to Christ:  "For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him" (ROM. 6:9).  The young man was resuscitated to life. He lived — and died — again, to then await the resurrection of the dead at the end of time, a resurrection prefigured and promised by the Lord's resurrection and victory over death.  The same can be said of the synagogue elder Jairus' daughter and, of course Lazarus, the friend of Christ who had been dead for four days.

We are told today that we are essentially a walking bag of chemicals with an evolved consciousness.  This further implies that at death this biological organism collapses, all consciousness is irreversibly lost, and that final oblivion is our common fate. The Scripture revelation that we accept as coming from God tells us something radically different.  To hear the Gospel is to fill us with the faith, hope and love that can only come from the living God.  It is to hear of a different destiny and one that makes life infinitely more meaningful and hopeful.  We too can cry out together with the crowd at Nain: "A great prophet has arisen among us!" and "God has visited his people!"  (LK. 7:16).  And living within the Church we know that this is the Lord who "shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; whose Kingdom shall have no end."